Winner of the American Christian Fiction Writer's Carol Award for Dauntless!!!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Thoughts on Holes

Okay, Holes is not exactly my typical fare, but last year my middle-school aged son read it for his English class. He told me that he really wanted to watch the movie together. Being the good Mommy that I am, I said, "Sure, honey." The truth was, I remembered this movie from when my older children were his age. At the time, it hadn't caught my interest. It seemed kind of depressing. A bunch of kids forced to dig holes in the hot desert with poison lizards. Not really my thing. So I was surprised when I studied for my Middle School English Praxis exam to learn that Holes, published in 1998, is now recommended young adult literature for school English curriculum.

As it turned out, Holes is a complex, deep, and thought-provoking story. It actually has three separate but related plot lines set in three different times and places that all tie together gorgeously by the end. The writer used so much circularity and continuity to demonstrate the hand of destiny at work that I was completely blown away. And he tossed in delightful, well-crafted touches throughout.

Even better, though, was enjoying this literary marvel through my child's eyes. As we watched the movie, he often paused to give me back story or explain the the plot or tell me about the historical significance of things going on in the story. I could tell how excellent his English teacher was and that my son's mind had been completely engaged in comprehending and critiquing the book on many different levels. He understood the historical significance, the sociological significance, the literary structure, the symbols, and more. He grew through the relationships in the story and his own relationship with the characters. Most importantly, he learned to understand and appreciate literature to a degree he never had before. I sat there thrilled as I watched him basking in the literature. In the pure unadulterated power of story.

Maybe that's why I'm so excited about writing for teens. Teens don't just want fluffy, entertainment reading. They read to learn about the world, to discover new experiences, and to be challenged. They don't mind complex plots or complicated vocabulary. They are willing to engage a tough story and come away changed. For them, literature is one of the many means by which they mature and grow into an adult understanding of the world. They are excited about this, and I'm excited for them!

When is the last time you completely basked in literature? What sort of stories cause you true delight?

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Medieval Conversation

Here is a fun conversation between me and fellow medieval author DeAnna Dodson from 2011 when my first medieval novel released. Those of you who love the medieval fiction might get a kick out of this. You can check out DeAnna's medieval series here.

DeAnna: Tell me what interested you in the medieval period before you wrote your book. Why did you set your story there and not in a different time period?

Dina at Medieval Times in Florida
Dina: When I started writing Dandelion I knew nothing about markets and trends. I just knew what I liked. Also at the time, I hadn’t decided if I would aim the books at a secular or Christian audience. I wanted to set the book before the Protestant Reformation because I thought it would be a great way to explore spiritual themes in an environment where they would seem organic. The medieval period seemed like a perfect opportunity to have a Christian world view book without being too overtly Christian in the preachy sort of way that annoys secular readers. During that era, everyone was Christian, but being Christian didn’t necessarily mean much. I also thought it would be great to look at Christianity in a different context, before our current Christianese dialect and denominational schisms. Finally, I've been very inspired by Christians from the medieval period. I love the poetry written by the saints of that period, and I wanted the book to reflect their intense spirituality.

So that’s the main reason I chose the medieval period. Knights, castles, and tournaments were just a bonus. Of course in the end, the spiritual aspects of the book really took on a life of their own, and I realized I would have to go in the direction of a Christian publisher.

DeAnna: The church was definitely a huge part of everyone's everyday life back then, whether or not each individual was truly living the faith. You made a great choice, then, for a place where the faith element would seem natural to the story, even to non-Christians.

Dina: Can I turn around the question to you, DeAnna? Why did you choose it for your first series?

DeAnna: I think for my books, besides the castles and the beautiful clothes and chivalry, I liked the idea that the king had such power over people's lives. I mean, these days you can fairly well live where you want and marry who you want and do whatever work you like. Back then, your choices were often much more limited, and your life could be dramatically changed at someone else's whim.

I also wanted to explore the idea of what it would be like to be forced into a position of power you didn't want and didn't feel equipped for and to have your choices affect not only yourself but all your people.

Plus I was heavily influenced by Shakespeare's history plays which are often family dramas with huge political stakes. I had to go medieval.

Dina: To add to what you were saying, I think today we really don't understand what it means to make Jesus the "lord" of our lives. You get a much better concept of this when you study the medieval time period. And I have to say that I loved the way your main character in your book struggled with his role as king and what to do with that power. It was so wonderful. Precisely the way a godly man should respond to that role.

DeAnna: Aww, thanks. I think I mostly just wanted to torture my hero a bit. So did you find anything in your research that surprised you or changed how you look at the medieval era?

Dina: My book is very different since my main character begins as a peasant. It looks at a cross section of society from rich to poor and in between. Dandelion travels to castles, to London, across the seas, and even to an Italian convent.

What surprised me in my research? When I first chose the time, I needed a famine year, and I landed on 1315. As the story idea continued to evolve in my head, I was hoping the time would coincide with some of those Catholic saints, which it did. And I knew that Dandelion would love to dance, especially as a child. However, I didn't think that I could incorporate any sort of worship dance as I'm involved in it today. I had always been led to believe that dancing as worship existed in the Old Testament and then faded away never to return until approximately 1970. Ha ha. Boy, was I wrong.

One day after I had the idea for my book but before I started writing, I was wandering through the library and a book caught my eye: Dance as Religious Studies. So I picked it up and brought it home. In it, I discovered that dance as worship existed throughout the middle ages, coming and going in waves until the enlightenment period when it finally fell out of fashion. Generally, it would thrive for a while until someone would get carried away or a new pope would discourage it, and then it would wane. But it was always around in some form. Finding that book was definitely a God thing. And it allowed me to incorporate something that I love and that has changed my life more fully into the book.

DeAnna: Yeah, it's really interesting how things that I think God meant us to do (like worship Him with our whole selves, including our bodies) gets misinterpreted and misused and repressed, but it always comes out anyway. I'm not a dancer per se, but I do dance sometimes when I worship (as long as nobody but God is watching) and it's glorious.

Did you find yourself modifying some historical realities for modern sensibilities?

I think that language has changed so much that, if we wrote the way our characters actually spoke, nobody would have a clue what they were saying. And there's that whole hygiene thing I just was not going to deal with. True or not, my people were going to take baths and have decent teeth. Of course, since my medieval books are not set in a real place because I wanted to have my own history and royalty, I had a little more latitude in what was and wasn't going to be "real."

Dina: I didn't even try to use medieval speech. As far as I'm concerned, Middle English is foreign language. I did debate on all the 'tis, 'twas, forsooth, type stuff. What I found in my research was that standard romance novels tended to use them, but historicals, like Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels, didn't. So I didn't use them either. I just tried to give an older British sound to the speech, and I tried not to use words or phrases that didn't exist by the time Modern English standardized around the era of King James. (I do use older words in the Dauntless series since it is a romance/adventure novel)

As for the hygiene issues, I actually enjoyed exploring that, although I did it more from the perspective of her contrasting her peasant life with her new life in the castle. Once she escapes from the village she discovers the wonders of baths, hair brushes, tooth scrapers, cosmetics, skin creams, and even indoor plumbing. And when she's in London, I do talk about some of the health and hygiene issues there, although she lives in a nice, upscale townhouse neighborhood.

If I stretched anything, it's just that it would have been so unlikely for a peasant girl to become educated and travel the way she did. But I was careful to set up the story so that it was technically possible. I think there have always been beautiful women who have found ways to climb the social ladder.

DeAnna: Middle English IS a foreign language! It's funny that some people say Shakespeare is "Old English." Ummm, no. It's modern English, but it's just old enough to sound a little strange to our modern ears. Most of the words aren't different.

I guess I wanted to give my dialogue enough difference to be medieval sounding without being stiff or too confusing. I wanted it to have a little music in it, too.

And, yes, I think class constraints would have made it hard for a peasant to rise above her station, but hard doesn't mean impossible. There are plenty of true examples of people who did break away from what usually happened.

Overall, people are people. Whether in the middle ages or today. We have the same struggles and heartaches and challenges. We share the same emotions and shockingly similar spiritual journeys. My book deals with the true meaning of love, worship, intimacy with Christ, and inner-healing. It also deals with ambitions, passions, and fears that are common to all of us. So while a book might be set in the far away medieval times, I think readers will still find much that they'll relate with.

DeAnna: Exactly. No matter how we dress them up, if our characters don't act like people our readers can relate to, then we haven't done our job. Thanks for the chat, Dina. I'm very much looking forward to reading Dance of the Dandelion. I've heard only wonderful things about it!

Order Dance of the Dandelion here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Celebrate Your Unique Gifts

This week, in addition to reading the last version of Chivalrous and trying to reach my 75% done goal on book 3 in the Valiant Hearts Series, I will also be busy celebrating my middle child's graduation from high school. Here's a peek into his life. As you can see, he loves the outdoors and adventure sports.

I'll be honest. Of my three children, Jonny is the least academic. He is very kinesthetic (again see pictures above), which is not the ideal academic learning style, and he also had to overcome an eye-focusing related learning disability. But because of that, he had to fight harder than the other two for his successes. And he is a fighter. He did well in school, will be receiving an advanced degree with honors, and earned a partial academic scholarship. 

It would have been easy to fuss at Jonny to stay inside and study when he longed to be outside and being physical, but we didn't do that. We could have compared him to his siblings, who breeze through their academic pursuits, but that would have been entirely unfair. 

At some point he seemed so miserable in school that I actually told him he didn't have to go to college. I gave him a list of possible careers that didn't involve a college degree, and I told him I would be proud of him no matter what he did. After that, he became more determined than ever to do well in school and go to college.

We celebrated and honored his unique gifts. We encouraged him, as we do with each of our children, to seek the path God had for him. Next year he will be studying business, which is a perfect fit for him. 

God has given each of us unique gifts. Your gifts might not look like someone else's. Your accomplishments might not look as impressive on paper as those of your friends or your siblings. But as long as you use your gifts and follow the path God has called you to, someday He will say, "Well done my good and faithful servant." 

And that's the best achievement anyone could ever hope for.

Monday, June 8, 2015

My #1 Goal for My Children

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting with an old college friend. As we talked at length, I shared with her my #1 goal for my children. It is not impeccable manners, academic perfection, athletic excellence, or financial success. It is not even morality, purity, great theology, or Biblical literacy, although all of those are certainly worthy goals.

My #1 goal for my children is that they have a strong personal relationship with Christ and know how to hear God's voice.

I have tailored all of my parenting toward this goal. Good manners are about showing kindness to others and treating them as reflections of their creator God. Academic success is about doing their best and making good use of the gifts God has given them. Athletics are about treating their body like the temple of the Holy Spirit. Morality and purity should be a natural outgrowth of that relationship with Christ. And while theology is important and Bible study is an essential way in which we learn to understand God's voice, without that life-giving spirit to guide us on the subtleties, logical study alone can be lifeless and brittle. If you know God and can hear His voice, everything else pretty much falls into place. 

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. ~ 2 Corinthians 3:6

Not often in life is a parent given the tangible gift of seeing their #1 goal for their children achieved. Yesterday, I received such a gift. So I'm going to keep this post short and encourage you to visit my daughter's missions blog. I think you'll be as blessed as I was. And take a minute to read some of her older posts. She is a true woman of God and an inspiration. Click here for Christi Sleiman's blogpost "Put Down the Headphones."

Quintessential Christi

Monday, June 1, 2015

Valiant Heroine - Rifqa Bary

Last week I shared about a valiant female warrior who gave her life for our country. This week I'd like to introduce you to an equally valiant heroine of the spirit. Rifqa Bary is a young Muslim woman who risked her life to follow Jesus. Rifqa and other women like her inspired my book Dance from Deep Within and even more so, the sequel I hope to publish someday, Dare from Deep Within. I hope you will be blessed, inspired, and emboldened by Rifqa's story. May God bless you with the same sort of courage to pursue the life that He has called you to.